SPARTACUS - DVD of the Week
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020
EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the great epics remains the 1960 ‘Spartacus,’ an early directing effort by Stanley Kubrick and, arguably, his most mainstream picture. My review was published in the Deseret News on May 9, 1991, on the occasion of a restoration and theatrical release — and which provided version shown in theaters now when the film is revived and the one released on disc and online these days. And that includes the new 4K upgrade released by Universal Home Entertainment a few weeks ago.
The latest re-issued classic film to get the restoration treatment is "Spartacus" — brought to us by the folks who resurrected "Lawrence of Arabia" a couple of years ago.
And you may ask why, since critics over the years have been somewhat disparaging toward "Spartacus," singling it out as a more clunky, less compelling example of the Hollywood sandal-and-sword epic, a genre that prospered during the late '50s and early '60s.
Even the film's director, Stanley Kubrick, has commented that "Spartacus" is perhaps the least of his work — probably because his other films, most prominently "2001 — A Space Odyssey" and "A Clockwork Orange," were singular visions while this one required him to bend somewhat to the will of others (primarily Kirk Douglas, who starred, co-produced and essentially mounted the project himself).
But it should be remembered that "Spartacus" has not been seen on the big screen with an audience for many years. How fair a judgment can it receive when reviewed, in retrospect, on the small screen — or worse, from memory?
Seeing "Spartacus" in this restored version, with its original overture, intermission and a few inserted pieces of footage that had been excised after initial screenings, is nothing short of spectacular.
The first half of the film focuses on the title character (played by Douglas), born a slave in ancient Rome, as he finds himself in a gladiator school run by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov, who won an Oscar as best supporting actor). There he is trained with other slaves to fight in the arena, for the purpose of being sold to Romans who wish to watch, for amusement, combat to the death. He also meets Varinia (Jean Simmons) and falls in love.
But when Roman senator Crassus (Laurence Olivier) drops by and insists on a fight to the death right there at Batiatus' school, it evolves into a riot as the slaves revolt and escape. Spartacus eventually organizes them and they cross the land freeing other slaves and building an army.
After the intermission, the film's second half is somewhat less focused as the action vacillates between Crassus' personal battles in the Roman senate, particularly against his longtime enemy Gracchus (Charles Laughton), and Spartacus' attempt to lead his army south to the sea, where they hope to board ships and escape Italy.
But in the final third, the story comes together very well and the ending is, for its time, surprisingly taut and stark.
Kubrick actually proved a perfect choice to direct "Spartacus," bringing a sense of graphic realism that was ahead of its time. This applies to some of the acting choices and the way he choreographed his literal cast of thousands as well as such highly publicized restored sequences as Crassus' face being splattered with blood when he kills a slave and Spartacus chopping of a Roman soldier's arm during a battle.
While it's perhaps understandable that censors balked at the bloody violence Kubrick included, some other choices, moments that are back in this restored version, seem less reasonable. The infamous "snails and oysters" scene, wherein Crassus makes a veiled homosexual advance toward his slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis), actually helps us understand why Antoninus runs away from his plush surroundings and easy life. Later, a touching moment that shows grieving parents burying their dead baby during the slave army's long trek gives us a sense of the hardships suffered during that journey, which is otherwise largely absent.
The most thrilling moments, however, do not come from material restored to this film, but rather from sequences that simply lose power on a video monitor. The projection of "Spartacus" on the big screen is what lends depth to the action sequences, offering the kind of spectacle we see so rarely today.
The two most stunning examples are Spartacus' duel to the death with a fellow slave (Woody Strode) in the film's first half, as exciting a movie fight as any in the past 30 years, and the incredible march of the Roman soldiers on the slave army toward the end of the picture, which reaches a zenith as the slaves drag flaming logs through the enemy's ranks.
The performances here are uniformly excellent, but special mention should be made of the subtle scene-stealing that Ustinov and Laughton bring to their roles — triumphs of subtle acting from which modern thespians could learn much.
There was no rating system in 1960, but this restored version has received a PG-13 for violence, along with a couple of brief moments where Simmons is partially nude.